Washoe Indians leery of runoff from mine

DRESSLERVILLE - Just as he has for most of his 67 years, Steven James stands on the river's edge and watches the springtime come roaring into the Washoe Indian reservation here in the foothills of the eastern Sierra.

Each April, the east fork of the Carson River flows with greater fury, fed by snowmelt from the towering mountain peaks. For generations, the Washoe have viewed the seasonal runoff as a spiritual force sent down from the heavens.

But now the Carson's thundering cascade strikes fear into the tribe.

The river carries a poisonous sulfuric acid discharge from the abandoned Leviathan Mine just across the California line in wooded and remote Alpine County.

''As a boy, I carried this water up to my house by the bucketful,'' James shouts over the river's din. ''But nobody would dream of drinking it today.''

The mammoth job of cleaning up Leviathan has been complicated by the defunct copper sulfate mine's odd notoriety: It is owned by the state of California.

State officials purchased Leviathan in 1983 as part of the arduous process of plugging its odorous acid drainage - a toxic stew that stings the skin and turns clear-running mountain streams sickly shades of yellow and red.

Asked to intervene by the Washoe two years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency as early as next month might place the 150-year-old mine on its Superfund list - a move that would establish the site as among the 1,400 most polluted places in the nation.

Leviathan is among thousands of abandoned mines - many dating back to the Gold Rush days - that continue to pollute 15 Western states, prompting local residents such as the Washoe to call for the federal government to clean them

Although it could bring long overdue funding for the mine cleanup effort, officials say federal involvement could further complicate California's role as both a regulator and a legally responsible party for Leviathan's chemical mess.

In purchasing the mine, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board made what one Nevada official called ''a deal with the devil.'' Arco, a former owner of the mine, agreed to pay $2.3 million in cleanup funds, and in return state officials freed the company from any future liability.

However, in designating Leviathan a Superfund site, federal officials are expected to name both Arco and the state as responsible for the $25 million cleanup, sending all parties scrambling to consult their lawyers.

''You've got polluted water from one state flowing into another,'' said Kevin Mayer, EPA's project manager for Leviathan. ''You've got a state wearing two hats, acting as both mine regulator and owner.

More immediately, however, state officials are working to keep millions of gallons of acid-tainted spring snowmelt from rushing into Leviathan Creek.

The Washoe say such seepage already has killed fish, made some tribe members sick and turned an upstream mountain refuge once held sacred by the tribe into a scarred no-man's land. Their concerns are echoed by residents across western Nevada, who say Leviathan's dirty flow of water must be stopped at any cost.

''It just flabbergasts me that California would ever buy such a polluted mine and then let a multimillion company like Arco off the hook for the cleanup,'' said Douglas County Commissioner Jacques Etchegoyhen. ''But the good news is that with federal help, we can get Arco back on the hook. All we want is for this mess to be cleaned up.''

For its part, Arco says the issue of liability for Leviathan is clear.

''We have a strong legal opinion that indeed the state has taken liability,'' said Sandy Stash, vice president for environmental cleanup for Arco. ''But having said that, we're realists. We plan to work together with the state and let any long term who-pays-for-what issues be worked out later.''

Closed for 38 years, Leviathan remains a legacy of strip mining practices that date to the 1950s, when the Anaconda Mining Co. dumped 22 million tons of waste rock into the meandering Leviathan Creek while trying to unearth the buried metals below.

Opened during the Civil War and named after a nearby mountain peak, Leviathan originally was mined for copper sulfate used to process silver ore in Nevada. After years of inactivity, the 250-acre site was purchased in 1951 by Anaconda, which soon employed open-pit mining methods that tore a hole in the pristine landscape - creating a chasm 2,000 feet long and 400 feet deep.

Over the years there have been several major fish kills due to surges of acid runoff, state and federal officials say. Sulfide from the mine turns into sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with water and air. The acid then dissolves arsenic, aluminum and calcium to create more pollution.

Leviathan was closed in 1962. Anaconda merged with Arco in the 1970s.

In a move that has been second-guessed ever since, state officials bought the property in 1983, reasoning that they could qualify for federal assistance designated for owners of polluted properties. The state paid $54,500 to a private owner who had recently bought the mine site from Arco.

The state has spent $7 million - including Arco's contribution - and officials say they have made improvements to reduce the acid flow.

The Washoe have complained that no comprehensive health studies ever have been conducted and say they are counting on the federal government to conduct such tests.

''That water flows first through Indian land, and it's easy to write off our concerns,'' said Brian Wallace, chairman of the local Washoe tribe. ''We're a low priority.''

Wallace said the acid runoff has scarred not only the landscape but also the Washoe's fragile sense of cultural identity.

Tribal members still harvest herbs on the river's banks for food and medicine and use the willow stalks growing wild there to weave handmade baskets.

''Water is sacred to the Washoe; it's central to our culture because it breathes life to everything around it,'' Wallace said. ''But now that water is poisonous, and that's just painful to us.''

Afraid of the water and its potentially hazardous effects, several Washoe families have moved from Dresslerville, an Indian community of about 3,000 people, Wallace said. Teachers at a local tribal school said a dozen students became sick last year after a field trip and picnic on the banks of Leviathan Creek.

Tribe members have caught discolored and deformed fish. And one woman blistered her mouth when - as part of the traditional basket-weaving technique - she used her teeth and lips to split a willow harvested near the Carson River.

''We're still many years and millions of dollars away from being able to close the door on this mine and say we've solved the problem once and for all,'' Wallace said.

That saddens Washoe tribal elder James, a proud man who has spent most of his life on the Washoe reservation.

Because he knows he will probably never again see unsullied woods near the mine, a place the Washoe traditionally call ''where the frogs make a lot of noise'' and where they once picked pinyon pine nuts, fished for cutthroat trout and hunted for deer.

''For the Washoe, it's like losing Yosemite,'' James said. ''Those woods up there were our national park.''

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